Post-apocalyptic video games are rarely serene. Thugs want to kill you, mutants want to eat you, and irradiated fauna wants to chew on your bones. Sometimes there are zombies. Video games rely on these conflicts to keep ladling us with gratification, but Submerged is a post-apocalyptic game where nothing kills or even chases you. You literally can’t die in Submerged.
I first saw Submerged at GDC in March. After several hours wandering booths, killing this and that and dying pretty regularly, I was drawn to the sad drowned world of Submerged. As a young woman named Miku I was allowed to slowly glide around in a boat, sailing between the crumbling skyscrapers of a ruined city, sighting uncannily familiar landmarks, and staring at the horizon as it melted into an orange dusk.
Submerged is a relaxing game and it’s probably going to annoy anyone looking for 'game-y' gratification. It's developed by Canberra studio Uppercut Games, and the three-person team have history with the now shuttered 2K Australia, formerly known as Irrational Australia. Employed by those studios, the team had a hand in the two BioShocks, as well as Tribes: Vengeance and Xcom, to name a few.
In all of these games you can die, but not in Submerged. Sometimes you’ll leave your boat to scale the treacherous walls of a ruin, but they’re not treacherous at all, really: you can’t fall off them. You can’t fall off anything. You’re gently tasked with finding resources that can aid your sickly brother, but unless you’re especially invested in the game’s cryptic plot there’s no urgency to do so.
“There are no failure states,” Uppercut director Ed Orman says. “This sounds very counterintuitive at first, but there are lots of different factors that have contributed to our combat-free game design. I guess the most prevalent one was that at some point we had the realisation that we'd made a place that was so pleasant that the threat of death sort of detracted from it.”
A few other factors contributed to Uppercut’s decision to forgo deadly conflict. The first is simple: after developing two third-person shooter games for phones and tablets, they were burnt out on combat. The second is borne of a GTA 4 mod that submerges Liberty City in water. “There was all this chaos and it totally broke the game,” Orman says. “But I had a freeze frame of it and I thought it looked like a really peaceful, interesting place’.”
In addition to resources for the protagonist’s brother, Submerged has other collectibles, including power-ups for your boat. But it appears Uppercut doesn’t necessarily want people to boot up Submerged in order to engage with its systems. This is a game inspired by Journey and Shadow of the Colossus—both games that leave the player to their own devices in a mysterious world. As in Journey, players can piece together the story via cryptic pictograms scattered throughout the world.
“I think the influence is obvious once you start playing it,” Orman says regarding Journey. “We learnt a lot about storytelling by working on BioShock—that idea of progression via storytelling, and having things in the environment that allow people to piece the story together. The language [on the pictograms] is a character substitute and I wanted to have that as an Easter egg for people to figure out—you can translate each of the pictograms.
“So there's no written history, just these images, and the player will have to decipher them and decide what they mean.”
One of the seemingly obvious themes of Submerged is climate change, though Orman is reluctant to drive the point home. The idea for the setting and gameplay long predates any association with the topic, though they did have to eventually decide what kind of apocalypse the world had experienced.
“It was unintentional at the beginning, but the setting we’ve chosen is pretty topical with global warming, sea levels rising and people ignoring that problem," said Orman. “It was only after we started talking about the backstory that we managed to tie everything together into something that affected the past and the present of the Submerged world. And while the story of the city and the world can be pieced together by exploring and finding secrets, we are never explicit—it's still up to the player to interpret the pictures they find and what story they tell.”
Submerged releases on Steam on August 4.